NEW ORLEANS — The Baltimore Ravens carried off the Lombardi Trophy. Their beaten opponent has a better chance of doing it next season.
San Francisco running back Frank Gore insisted the 49ers were the more talented team even after losing 34-31 to the Ravens in Sunday's Super Bowl. The scoreboard said otherwise, but when the conference champions meet at the Meadowlands next February — yes, outdoors in the dead of winter for the NFL crown — the Niners easily could represent the NFC.
"I'd say we've got a great group of guys in the locker room, great warriors," Gore said, "and I'm not going to promise anything next year, but we're going to fight to get back here."
The toughest fight might be in their own division with Seattle and rapidly improving St. Louis. The Seahawks were the only team to allow fewer points than the 49ers, and their rivalry — including the semi-feud between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll — adds spice to the NFC West.
But the 49ers have to be the NFC favorite after losing in overtime to the Giants for the conference title last year, then barely falling to the Ravens on Sunday night.
"This is kind of tough, to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands," said Ahmad Brooks, part of the best linebacking corps in the league, along with All-Pros Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. "The funny thing about it is, within the next few months, we're going to start trying to get back to the same place that we're at right now."
As will the Ravens, but their challenge is more imposing.
Unlike the 49ers, who figure to lose virtually no important parts — receiver Randy Moss, perhaps, but he was a marginal player in 2012 — the Ravens have bid adieu to their greatest player, linebacker Ray Lewis. Not only will they miss his performances on the field and his presence in the locker room, but he was the emotional engine in Baltimore.
The leadership burden will fall on two players whose contracts have expired but likely will be back with the Ravens: Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco and veteran safety Ed Reed.
Flacco almost certainly will get the franchise tag at more than $14 million if he can't agree to a long-term deal. But in the current NFL, winning without a top-level QB is impossible, and there can be no arguing now about Flacco belonging in that class.
Reed wants to return and the Ravens recognize how unwise it would be to let both Lewis and Reed leave at the same time — even after winning their second Super Bowl in 12 seasons.
"I always said when I came into the league and got drafted that I didn't want to be one of those guys jumping from team to team," Reed said during Super Bowl week.
Regardless, the Ravens will be a force — odds makers have placed them behind New England and Denver in the AFC next season — and one of the NFL's most prolific offensive teams.
Flacco throwing to the superb trio of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta, plus the versatility of running back Ray Rice and a stud backup in Bernard Pierce says so. Flacco's protection from the line and All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach was impeccable in the postseason, helping Flacco throw for a record-tying 11 TDs with no interceptions.
The defense, oddly enough considering Baltimore's reputation, needs some work. But linebacker Terrell Suggs will be even healthier — he came back quickly from a torn Achilles tendon — and top cornerback Lardarius Webb returns from a knee injury.
Just like the 49ers, the Ravens have a tough task in their division. Cincinnati is young, but has made the playoffs the last two years. Pittsburgh never remains dormant for long.
Should these two clubs make it to the first outdoor Super Bowl at a cold-weather site, would Baltimore have the edge because it's used to such conditions? And because it's a three-hour drive from MetLife Stadium, will Ravens fans be out in force even more than they were in the Big Easy?
Or would the 49ers' immense talent base be overwhelming?
Food for thought over the next 11 months.
"We've got to look at this as a blessing because we didn't have to be here, but we made it," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We've always got next year; we've got next season. We might as well look forward to next season, keep our hopes high and continue to climb."